I’ve been pondering a series about webcams for some months. As the use of video becomes ever more commonplace webcams have moved into an increasingly important role in both our personal and professional lives.
My own use of webcams harkens back to around 2000. At that time I was working for an English firm, but working primarily from my home office in Texas. My boss was splitting his time between the UK and an office in the Miami area. Others were scattered about North America.
A dispersed group such as this we were making a lot of use of conference calls to have meetings. Being a smaller, privately held firm, we watched costs closely. We often used the fairly new, free conference services. We were at that point blissfully unaware of the games that they played to generate revenue.
Heck, back then “broadband” was anything over 128 kbps. We enjoyed 3 mbps x 768kbps DSL and I still had multiple analog phone lines from SBC.
Ever trying to improve how the team worked, I stumbled onto a deal on a small box of IBM webcams. These were the very model pictured above. I think we paid $10 each for a box of six, which was about all they were worth. Nonetheless, we were going to try to incorporate video into our weekly meetings, and this was a way to do it on the cheap.
To leverage the webcams we started using Microsoft’s Netmeeting, an H.323-based video calling tool that was included with Windows. Seeking something more we eventually purchased licenses for the commercial version of Cu-SeeMe Pro from White Pine Software.
It’s helpful to put this in context of the state-of-the-art of that time. Back in 2000 the Pentium III operating at 1 GHz was a cutting edge CPU and GeForce 3 was then current state-of-the-art for GPUs. SXGA displays running 1280×1024 pixels were a luxury.
As the Wikipedia entry suggests, at that time the hardware was simply not up to the challenge. We suffered through H.263 encoded video at low frame rates. The actual image resolution varied from “Sub-QCIF” (128×96) to SIF (352 x 240) in the very best case. The poor image quality ultimately rendered the whole exercise questionable.
It wasn’t until Skype came along a few years later (2003) that audio became reliable and video at least approachable.
However, over time things have progressed. Computers are faster. Memory has become more plentiful. Bandwidth is more readily available. All the while the humble webcam remains the primary way to gather imagery for real-time video communication. In my next pass at this topic I’ll consider some of the webcams that have more recently found their way into my hands.